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Taiwanese Vegetable Grower Brings Life To A Poor Zambales Village

The remote barangay of Balaybay in Castillejos, Zambales used to be an unknown place some 10 years ago. Like most far-flung barrios, there was nothing to make it well known. It was a sleepy community where marginal farm families lived. There was no significant economic activity to speak of.

Today, Balaybay has become well known as the source of high-value vegetables that find their way to supermarkets in the Subic free port and in Metro Manila. No less than one to two tons of leafy greens and fruit vegetables are shipped to Manila every day from the 10-hectare farm operated by Johnson Huang, a 43-year-old Taiwanese.

Foreign nationals as well as Filipinos from the Subic industrial zone also frequent the place not only to buy their supply of fresh vegetables but also to sample the fine cooking of Johnson, Taiwanese style. In fact, a number of Manilans and other outsiders also visit Johnson’s Green Healthy Vegetable Farm to observe the farm’s operation. In the supermarkets in Manila and Subic, the vegetables bear the Garden Green brand. They are really fresh because they are delivered by a refrigerated van immediately after cleaning and packing the same.. They are washed with purified water.

Among the crops grown by Johnson are three varieties of lettuce, spinach, upland kangkong, chives, Taiwan eggplant, cucumber, patola, vegetable soybean, cherry tomato, okra, Taiwan ampalaya in white), culinary herbs and several others. Johnson also plants sweet corn and sugarcane for chewing and juice.

MORE THAN 150 GREENHOUSES
Most of the leafy greens are grown inside more than 150 greenhouses that are enclosed with fine-mesh nets so that insects can’t get inside to damage the plants: Johnson does not need to spray his vegetables with chemical pesticides so they are very safe to eat. Others that are sturdier are, grown in the open like sweet corn, sugarcane, hot pepper, vegetable soybean and some others.

Most of the crops that Johnson grows are not usually planted by farmers in the community. Spinach and lettuce, for instance, are not usually eaten by families in the place. These are not ingredients for the usual “pinakbet” or “dinengdeng” that the .residents (mostly Ilocanos) cook for their daily meals.

Johnson purposely planted the crops that the townspeople did not usually grow and cat. For one, people will not care to steal such vegetables. For another reason, he did not want to compete with the local farmers who sold their small harvests in the town’s market. After all, he had in mind selling his produce to the supermarkets and hotels in the Subic free port as well as in Manila.

HOW HE CAME TO RP
How, in the first place, did Johnson come to the Philippines and engage in vegetable farming? He is not an agriculturist. Neither was he a farmer in Taiwan. He took a course in power engineering and worked as manager of a department store before coming to the Philippines with his older brother. The brother is a locator at the Subic free port where he runs a factory that fabricates supermarket carts and racks for export to Taiwan. Instead of helping his brother in his factory, however, he chose to get into vegetable farming in the remote barrio of Balaybay.

He fell in love with the very quiet environment of Balaybay. For a start, Johnson rented a one-hectare farm to undertake his vegetable project. He remembered the well-kept vegetable gardens in his country and thought it must be easy to grow those beautiful leafy greens. He soon found out, however, that it was not really easy. The first five years were extremely difficult. He was spending and spending a lot of his own money to develop his rented farm. The water system was costly to set up. So were the other inputs like seeds, plastic mulch, greenhouse and others. He had to improve the soil which was covered with lahar from Mt. Pinatubo by applying a lot of chicken manure. He and his workers had to learn how to grow the crops he chose to produce.

BARRIO PEOPLE SKEPTICAL
He found the people in Castillejos very friendly but they were very skeptical in the beginning. They thought he was crazy using mosquito nets to protect his vegetables from insects and bad weather. Nevertheless he did not waver in his determination to succeed. He discovered that the outlets in Manila and the Subic free port liked what he produced. He now says that for as long as you have a good product, the buyers will keep on wanting more. That is why he rented a 10-hectare farm in 2002 to increase his production significantly.

Although he is now delivering one to two tons of his produce every day to his buyers in Manila and Subic, particularly 12 branches of Shopwise and three of Puregold supermarket, he says there is an even bigger market wanting to buy from him. In fact, purchasing personnel of the country’s biggest supermarket chain have already approached him three times asking him to supply them with his produce. He has begged off, however, because he could not simply produce the volume required at present.

ADDITIONAL CROPS EVERY YEAR
In the beginning, he just grew a small number of varieties. But every year, he added new crops to his product line so that today, there are more than 24 highvalue vegetables and other crops that he grows. One crop that has excited him lately is sugarcane for chewing and juice production. In the last two years, he planted sugarcane on a half-hectare portion of his farm. He found sugarcane to be highly profitable. He said he got 40 to 50 tons per half hectare in eight months of growing period. He sold the fresh canes at P30 per kilo while the juice he serves in his small eating place to upscale visitors fetches P40 per glass of 500 cc or half liter. He has a stainless juice extractor from Taiwan.

This year, instead of just planting half hectare to sugarcane, he has rented a new five-hectare area for growing this crop. He has formed a team for this purpose. The only disadvantage he sees in sugarcane production is that it takes a much longer time to grow than his leafy vegetables. But that’s not really a big
problem. He can always wait for eight months. After all, he has so many other crops to harvest every day.

One new vegetable variety that Johnson will be adding this year is the golden pechay from Known-You Seed of Taiwan. This has shiny golden leaves and i, highly suitable for use in mami and other noodle soups.

KEY TO SUCCESS
A clear key to Johnson’s success is his management system that involves good human relations and adoption of practical, improved production practices. He is well loved by the people because he has provided employment to at least 70 people from the town. He is paying them the right compensation as mandated by law as or even higher than the minimum wage. He says he has not fired anybody. If one desires to stop working for him, he can do so but will always be welcome back if he wants to return. A friend of his revealed that the residents want to make him barangay chairman. Of course, that’s not possible because he is a foreigner.

To produce good quality harvest, lie employs improved practices. Besides the use of greenhouses that minimize pest and disease damage, he also uses other doable technologies such as the use of plastic mulch to keep down the weeds. This also helps to conserve moisture in the soil during dry periods and to minimize waterlogging during the rainy months. lie is also using rice straw as mulch in some parts of the plantation. When the straw decomposes, it will add organic matter to the sandy soil.

lie also practices crop rotation to avoid buildup of disease organisms and pests in one place. He observes cleanliness on the farm, not allowing weeds to proliferate as these could harbor insect pests.

Johnson likewise pays special attention to seedling production. He uses the latest hybrid seeds from Known-You Seed of Taiwan, germinating them in plastic trays. Even sweet corn, which is usually sown direct in the ground, is germinated in plastic trays and then transplanted when they are about two weeks old. This way, there is a better survival of the plants in the field. It would be hard for the weeds to overtake them.

Johnson uses a lot of chicken manure to improve the lahar-laden soil. In the beginning he used to apply 100 sacks of dried chicken manure per greenhouse measuring 5 meters wide and 24 meters long. Today, however, he applies just 10 sacks per greenhouse just before planting. Every month, he buys 3,000 sacks of chicken manure at P25 per sack.

WORKERS FORMED INTO TEAMS

To motivate the workers to do their best, they are formed into teams which compete with one another. In the production section, each team consists of 10 people, including the team leader. Every Saturday, Johnson meets with the teams who report what they have done for the week. How many plants have they planted? How many kilos have been produced in their assigned area? Members of the top performing team are given soda to drink. The soft drink is no big deal but it gives the winning team a sense of triumph and the other teams would usually work harder to become the winner next time.

Every six months, the production of each team is assessed and members of the team with the best performance are given a bonus equivalent to one month’s pay. The production team that received the latest extra pay was led by Frederick Zaldivar who produced 80 tons during the period.

CHEAPEST AND FASTEST TO GROW
What are the crops produced and delivered in big volumes to Johnson’s customers? Spinach and lettuce are bio items. lie delivers about 300 kilos of spinach and 150 kilos’ of lettuce a day. Most of the other items are in the range of 50 to 100 kilos a day.

He notes that spinach is the fastest and cheapest to grow. He says that the seeds needed for one greenhouse cost only P75. The seeds don’t have to be germinated in seedling trays. They are mixed with fine soil and then broadcasted on the plots in the greenhouse. In just 20 days from broadcasting, the plants are already harvestable.

And what is Johnson’s most expensive produce? It is coriander which fetches as much as B300 to P400 per kilo. Of course, the volume needed by the market is limited.

OTHER FARMERS’ PRODUCE
To augment the volume of his deliveries to his customers, Johnson also carries selected products of other farmers. Of late he has included in his deliveries a lot of melons produced by Taiwanese growers based in Pampanga. A few Filipino farmers are also growing cucumber for him. Among the cucumber produced is a variety that produces fruits weighing a kilo. There are of course varieties with smaller fruits.

Upon the suggestion of well meaning friends, Johnson has put up an eating place right in his farm so really fresh vegetables could be sampled by visitors. The fact is that groups from Manila are starting to discover the fresh offerings in the eatery at Johnson’s Green Healthy Vegetables Farm. With the North Luzon Expressway and the SCTEx (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway), Brgy. Balaybay can he reached in just over two hours by car.

With this publicity, expect more people to go visiting Johnson Huang’s remarkable farm.